NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who visited Canada on August 25, 2022, criticized Russia’s efforts to militarize the Arctic and China’s increasing presence in that theatre. Stating that China could use the Arctic more, Stoltenberg described the Beijing-Moscow cooperation in the Arctic as a “strategic partnership” that challenges NATO’s interests. These words brought up the question of ‘what kind of threat NATO perceives from China.’
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views of Lin A. Mortensgaard, Research Assistant at the Centre for Military Studies, Dep. of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, evaluating China’s cooperation with Russia in the Arctic and NATO’s perspective on this solidarity.
- Do you think China is collaborating with Russia in the Arctic? If so, what are the dimensions of this cooperation? Can you explain?
China is collaborating with Russia in the Russian part of the Arctic. So far this has mostly been in the form of infrastructure planning, investments and sharing of technological knowledge. Russia’s very large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects in the Russian Arctic are of interest to China, and the two states are collaborating on this. China has also partaken in military exercises and training in the Russian Arctic and Far East. That’s why, the dimensions are both economic and military. On top of this, China has a growing scientific presence and engagement in the Arctic, which is considered in many cases to have dual-use potential.
- NATO sees China’s presence in the Arctic and its cooperation with Russia as a “strategic challenge.” What is the reason for this classification? How could China pose a threat to NATO?
I think NATO sees China as a strategic or ‘systemic challenge’ in general, not just in the Arctic. Therefore, it is clear that NATO has an increasing focus on China, Chinese intentions and military developments and implications of these on the global stage. The Arctic is a stage of this increased focus from NATO towards China. But the main focus in the Arctic for NATO at the moment is Russia. It is Russian military build-up, training, exercises and rhetoric in and on the Arctic that concerns NATO. Russia shares a land border with Arctic NATO member Norway as well as a very long land border with Arctic and Finland, which will be a NATO member soon. The Russian bastion defence concept involves control with Northern Norway and Northern Finland and this worries NATO, as does the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap in the North Atlantic, which functions as a strategic bottle neck and gateway to the North Atlantic in a crisis or conflict situation. So yes, NATO is watching Chinese initiatives in the Arctic, and Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Arctic, but in an Arctic and North Atlantic context Russia remains the main concern from a NATO perspective.
- Do you think that Beijing will support Moscow in the event of a war between NATO and Russia?
I think that depends on a number of factors that are very difficult to predict at this point in time. First of all, how does China interpret or view its cooperation with Russia, including the agreement between the two states from 4 February 2022 (and how may China’s view of this agreement have changed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine)? Second, what will happen in Ukraine? If Russia continues to renege on its initial ambitions launched on 24 February 2022, and China begins to see Russia as a less capable military power than it did before the invasion, then Beijing’s calculus could change. Third, what’s in it for China and how does support for Russia in a war with NATO fit with China’s larger aims (economic, military, diplomatic) and with China’s stated policy on a number of issues including Taiwan and the principle of non-interference? The answer can only be speculative at this point.
- Do you think that NATO will enter into a tougher struggle with China, especially at a time when Liz Truss, seen as China hawk, is elected as a prime minister in the UK? What will be the reflections of this struggle for the Arctic?
I don’t think the NATO’s focus on China will decrease in the coming decade, but I’m not sure this has much to do with Liz Truss and her views on China. NATO is an alliance of states, and even though the UK is a very important member, this focus on China started long before Liz Truss was in the picture. I think the more pertinent question with regards to both NATO as an alliance and its approach to China is who will be in the White House after the 2024 election. But regarding the Arctic and the UK, it is clear that the UK has increasingly been looking North in the last few years, publishing a number of Arctic strategies and participating in most exercises alongside the US in the Arctic and North Atlantic. So even though the UK is not considered an Arctic state, I think this increasing focus on the Arctic region will continue with Liz Truss and after Liz Truss.
Lin Alexandra Mortensgaard
Lin A. Mortensgaard is the Research Assistant at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. She has a master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and an MA(Hons) in International Relations and Arabic from the University of St Andrews. In her master thesis she researched the interplay between the UN Law of the Sea, the geophysical burden of proof and political demands of a maximized claim from the Kingdom of Denmark in the Arctic Ocean.
Research interests: Arctic security studies, the Kingdom of Denmark as an Arctic player and the unity of the Danish Realm. Global challenges such as climate change, increasing great power competition and border-making play out in the Arctic.
 “NATO Chief: Russian Arctic Militarisation A ‘Strategic Challenge’”, SCMP, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3190382/nato-chief-russian-arctic-militarisation-strategic, (Date of Accession: 11.09.2022).